Some of President Obama’s most vociferous critics on the transparency front will grudgingly concede, as our survey seemed to suggest, that his administration has made marginal progress. “A lot of colleagues would stone me for saying this, but it actually has gotten better,” says Joe Davis, the director of the SEJ’s Freedom of Information Project. “And I think one of the most illustrative cases in point is the one about coal ash.” In December 2008, a coal-ash containment pond at a power plant in Tennessee burst, spreading toxic waste across hundreds of acres and dozens of homes. The spill was the last skirmish in the society’s long battle over transparency and access with the Bush EPA, which took eleven days to release the results of its first tests of the sludge. An agency official under the new Obama administration promised to do better, but in June 2009, SEJ accused the EPA of “hiding” a list of high-hazard, coal-ash impoundments across the country, some of which posed potential threats to residential communities. At first, the agency echoed the post-September 11 Bush line about guarding the information for national security reasons. “Terrorists were less of a threat than a good rainstorm, which might sweep away any of those impoundments,” Davis says. “But eventually they released the list, so we have that information and the communities [near the impoundments] know about them, and maybe safety measures will be put in place. That information would not have come out under the Bush administration. That’s the difference. However, I will also say in my next breath that the Obama administration hasn’t lived up to its promises. They raised our expectations so high and the distance we’ve come is disappointingly short.”
One thing that helped raise those expectations was the memo that President Obama sent to John Holdren, then awaiting confirmation as director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in March 2009. It directed him to draft a plan to improve scientific integrity throughout the executive branch. A key provision was the development of a public communications plan. Obama gave Holdren 120 days to complete the assignment. Now, more than two years later, the plan is still not in place. In August 2010, more than a year after they were due, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—a nonprofit alliance of local, state, and federal natural resource professionals—submitted a FOIA request to Holdren’s office for a copy of the recommendations and related policy documents. After two months passed with nothing from OSTP, the group sued.
Finally, last December, Holdren released a memo providing guidance to departments and agencies about how to improve scientific integrity and openness. The document immediately drew criticism from transparency watchdogs for “legitimizing,” as the SEJ put it, interview permissions and minders. A few days later, OSTP released the related policy documents—meeting notes, progress reports, congressional testimony—that the public employees group had requested. They were heavily redacted, but in the snippets that weren’t SEJ’s Joe Davis saw the fingerprints of a suspect he believes has played a key role in thwarting progress toward openness and access over multiple administrations: the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has the power to review and approve programs, policies, and procedures throughout the executive branch.
The documents that OSTP released revealed that, in fact, Holdren and company had sent their transparency recommendations to OMB by June 2009, on schedule to meet Obama’s original deadline, and that the effort foundered there. More than a year later, the two offices were still trying to settle on a final draft of the recommendations, which weren’t released until December 2010, more than seventeen months behind schedule. Last May, Holdren once again extended the deadline for departments and agencies to submit draft policies, which were due around the time this article went to press.
“omb, an agency with very little in-house scientific expertise, has been monkeying with science for a very long time, and asserting authority over the science process in the federal government,” Davis says. “It provides an ideal mechanism for interference.”